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Caught in more than one crossfire

The banning of an exhibition of art by Palestinian kids is just the latest skirmish in an escalating local battle.

You might think a children’s art museum an unlikely site for a confrontation between Israeli and Palestinian activists. But that’s exactly what happened this fall when, under pressure from pro-Israel groups, the Oakland Museum of Children’s Art canceled an exhibition of Palestinian kids’ drawings two weeks before its projected opening. The Gazan children’s art depicted burning buildings, Israeli tanks and gunships, and lots of dead bodies—grim stuff, but realities of the 2008–2009 Israeli assault on Gaza. The protesting groups complained that these images were biased, and the museum decided they were too divisive to display, even though it had shown similar drawings by Iraqi children in 2004. The exhibition quickly found a new home in a storefront around the corner from the museum, and the opening drew an estimated 500 people.
     The fracas was just the latest in an unusual spurt of efforts in the past year on the part of pro-Israel activists aimed at forcing Bay Area institutions to quiet pro-Palestinian voices. In early March, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into UC Santa Cruz after a Jewish lecturer complained that academic campus events critical of Israel were anti-Semitic. Palestinian groups scoff at the charges, but if the feds rule against UCSC, the school could lose federal funding. 
     Around the same time, a former UC Berkeley student filed a lawsuit against both Cal and the UC system alleging that the school had allowed an atmosphere hostile to Jews to develop on campus. She charges the university with failing to protect her from an assault by a pro-Palestine student at a campus rally, conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, and accuses pro-Palestinian campus groups of committing “terrorist acts.” And in late March—against the wishes of its tenured faculty—UC Hastings College of the Law abruptly pulled its name from a conference it hosted this year on litigating human rights abuses in Palestine, after lobbying
groups complained that the topic was unfair to Israel.
     Far from being dismayed by the pushback, local pro-Palestine activists see it as proof that their message is getting out. Israel has long dominated in the court of public opinion, but in the past decade or so, the Palestinian narrative has gained traction, especially in the Bay Area, with its liberal politics and vibrant Arab American community. For example, Students for Justice in Palestine, the nation’s most influential pro-Palestine student group, was born at UC Berkeley and now boasts more than 75 chapters. Last year’s divestment debate at Cal, in which activists took a page from the 1980s anti-apartheid playbook, came within one vote of convincing the student senate to demand that the university divest its holdings in corporations that equip the Israeli military—a move intended to equate Israel with whiteruled
South Africa.
     “It all shows desperation on the part of the anti-Palestine groups,” says Barbara Lubin, executive director of the Middle East Children’s Alliance, which organized the Oakland exhibition. And that’s a direct response, Lubin says, to the fact that “more people are seeing the light and speaking out.”